A Lukewarm Response: The Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence proposes an alternative international security paradigm

John Siebert Defence & Human Security

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2011 Volume 32 Issue 4

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn proposed that dramatic changes periodically take place in the scientific world. Replicable experimentation results in an accumulation of anomalies not easily explained by prevailing theories. A new theoretical explanation—a paradigm shift—is put forward, offering a fuller or more coherent explanation that accounts for the anomalies and propels science forward. Among Kuhn’s examples was the shift from the Ptolemaic theory of the earth as centre of the solar system to the Copernican revolution in cosmology.

Before a new paradigm is adopted, however, established leaders and institutions in the field fight against it. People whose careers and institutions are built on the old paradigm of knowledge naturally try to preserve their places in the firmament of prestige (and funding). This institutional instinct of steadfastness in the face of contrary evidence or a better explanation affects science as much as religion and politics. As German physicist Max Planck, the founder of quantum physics, quipped, “Science advances one funeral at a time.”

These liminal moments of unrest eventually give way to general acceptance of the new paradigm. Experimentation in line with the new paradigm results in new anomalies and the cycle repeats. These cycles can take years or decades or centuries.

These thoughts went through my mind as I participated in the Second Ministerial Review Conference of the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development (October 31– November 1). Twentysome years after the end of the Cold War, a struggle is being waged for a new international security paradigm. The status quo is so-called realism, which threatens the use of force, backed by overwhelming military expenditures, by military coalitions that are based on national interest-defined security. The new players in the field are evidenced-based approaches that point to poverty, social and economic inequality, and lack of political participation as primary sources of individual and community insecurity. Investment in development, along with reforming and redefining traditional security mechanisms such as police, military, and intelligence, represent hope and the way forward.

Amidst all the sound and fury of the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the Great War on Terror providing policy (or more accurately rhetorical) cover, the world fails to look squarely at the evolving picture of violence and conflict. The number of armed conflicts, including those within countries, has decreased dramatically over the past 15 years. This decrease is matched by the decrease in the number of direct casualties in those wars that stubbornly continue.

This good news is clouded by the findings of the updated report from the Geneva Declaration Secretariat, The Global Burden of Armed Violence (2011). Keith Krause from Small Arms Survey, who provided an overview of the report at the conference, said that more than half a million people die each year as a direct consequence of armed violence—about 1,500 each day. The vast majority of these deaths take place outside war zones. It is estimated that 1.5 billion live in circumstances of endemic armed violence, primarily in the low-income countries of the global south.

Armed violence is concentrated in 14 countries, which have violent death rates higher than 30 per 100,000. Only six of these countries are considered to be “at war.” Seven of the 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Clearly, countries that rate low on the human development index are much more prone to high rates of homicide. No low-income and violence-affected country has achieved a single Millennium Development Goal (MDG), and none is likely to do so by 2015, the target date to meet all MDGs.

Surprisingly, no clear-cut relationship has been found between the prevalence of firearms and deaths by armed violence, but where there are higher homicide rates, the percentage of homicides caused by firearms increases. Of the approximately 526,000 victims who have died violently each year since 2005, 66,000 have been women. Young men between 15 and 30 years of age are the primary perpetrators and victims of armed violence. The inherent tragedy of the loss of life through armed violence is compounded by the fact that endemic violence hinders development.

Research clearly shows that armed violence can be controlled and reduced through innovative programming by governments and civil society that

  • makes the criminal justice sector more effective
  • enhances dispute resolution mechanisms
  • holds governments accountable for reducing violence
  • works with municipalities in which rapid urbanization can concentrate violence
  • ensures that the people affected are part of the solution through community-based initiatives and genuine cooperation with the security services.

In a country such as Guatemala, with extreme levels of criminal armed violence, remedial education for the young, livelihood training, banning firearms, restricting alcohol, and improving local infrastructure such as street lighting can reduce violent deaths among those who are vulnerable to gangs and illegal pursuits. In effect, the social contract must be shored up with services and hope.

Rubem César Fernandes from Viva Rio in Brazil told the Geneva gathering that we know what the solutions are. The challenge is to get the police and military to work with each other and with local people, along with local churches, municipalities, and development actors. Asked why Latin America is so plagued by armed violence, he responded that “it is not our destiny.” Inequality, not poverty, is a spur to armed violence. In a certain sense, armed violence is a sign of progress in that people are not just giving up. There is an organized if criminal effort to make something happen in the face of exclusion from the benefits of a growing economy.

What the Geneva Declaration is really doing is proposing an alternative security paradigm—and the lukewarm response from states is telling. At the turn of the century, the Millennium Development Goals process created seven evidence-based standards to measure investment from donor countries and concrete implementation in the field by 2015. All of the MDGs are worthy, dealing with advances in areas such as maternal and child health and access to primary education.

What the framers of the MDGs deliberately avoided was a goal to reduce violence, even though violence stops and reverses development processes. In part this was a functional decision to keep the spheres of development and security separate. There is still suspicion in some development quarters about the securitization of aid or the diversion of development assistance funding to shore up weak police and military forces in low-income countries. But rejection of such a goal was also a standard response by the proponents of traditional hard security, who refuse to address the social and economic conditions that foster violence.

The government of Switzerland and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) began the Geneva Declaration initiative in 2006 to address the glaring omission of armed violence in the MDG process. Norway also has provided state leadership and added funding to Swiss contributions to encourage research on measureable indicators of armed violence. Support for civil society organizations to participate has been provided. Other international bodies, such as the Development Assistance Committee of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank, have developed their own policy work on the impact of violence on social and economic development.

One hundred and twelve states have now signed on to the Geneva Declaration, but state representation at the recent conference was generally not at the Ministerial level. Speeches from states often played down the problems of armed violence in their countries. Enhanced global and regional research on violence-affected areas was applauded, but more support is now required for community-level mitigation of armed violence.

The old security paradigm is well entrenched and is not about to easily cede its place to another. Just follow the money. Annual worldwide military expenditures, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, are now US$1.5-trillion. The U.S. accounts for almost half of that amount; NATO states, including Canada and the U.S., are responsible for two-thirds of all military expenditures. The annual economic and social drain of armed violence is estimated to cost more than $160-billion, more than all of the Official Development Assistance contributed by donor countries.

Cuts may be coming to NATO military budgets, but not because of a shift from military spending to development and community-level security. Rather, dire economic and debt realities in the U.S. and Europe could force reductions. 

In recent commentary on the $2-million Canadian-funded weekend security conference held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dr. Taylor Owen pointedly asked, “What is the value proposition of a largely Euro-Atlantic, NATO-focused confab of security-sector leaders?” He noted that, while it is “a trope in international relations to say that the world of security changed ‘after the end of the cold war,’” it has indeed changed. “The security conversation now rightly involves any number of auxiliaries to military affairs, including development, human rights, the environment, public health, local violence, and so on.”

Thomas Kuhn, had he been a security policy expert rather than a historian of science, could not have said it better. A paradigm shift is in the offing, but the entrenched institutional interests of the traditional security world are valiantly sticking to their guns. We are left to wonder: will we see a shift to this new paradigm of security in the near future?


Geneva Declaration Secretariat. 2011. Global Burden of Armed Violence: Lethal Encounters. New York: Cambridge
University Press.
Owen, Taylor. 2011. Conferencing in Halifax while Rome burns? Blog, Taylor Owen.com, November 25.

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